Hearts in Harmony
On Tuesday evening I spent a happy couple of hours with Hearts in Harmony, the staff choir at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. They formed back in the summer, and have been inviting various choral folk from around the region to run one-off sessions in between auditions for a permanent director. So it was an interesting session to plan, as it needed to be both self-contained (they’ll be singing with someone else next week), and provide continuity (whilst I won’t be there next week, they will). Some continuity was provided in that they had an arrangement of a Christmas carol they had started last week and wanted to work on again. So I did them an arrangement of another carol in a contrasting style that we could learn in one session, but they could then add to their collection for their Christmas performances.
The choir has a range of different types of experience among its members, and because they have been singing together only a few months, they are still very clearly learning from each other – this is a very different feel from a choir that has been established for fifteen years and has developed its standard ways of doing things. On the other hand, as they have been together a few months, they know each other quite well, and know who to turn to for different types of support from within the ranks. I love the moments in rehearsing with a small group like this where you give a couple of minutes’ break after some really intensive work and everybody goes into a little huddle in their section sorting each other out with the details they need help with.
One of the interesting challenges when working with a choir that mixes music-readers and ear singers is developing learning strategies that suit both. I’ll always encourage people who don’t read music yet to use the sheet music as an aide-memoire – it can help to find your way round the geography of a piece, even if you need to hear your part before you can sing it. (And of course musical notation was originally invented to help people remember pre-existent music rather than to compose new tunes.) And of course there isn’t simple a binary distinction between those who read music and those who don’t – there’s a continuum from people who can sight-read very confidently, to those who can work out their part from the music with a keyboard but need help to be sure of it in rehearsal, to those who use the words to hang their memory of the music as learned by ear.
So, there’s always going to be the need for lots of repetition to give the singers the chance to absorb the music. And this can be very pleasurable – it keeps us all in the musical bits of our brains and sets up a nice rhythm. You can tell when people are getting cognitively more confident with the music, too, as their voices become clearer and freer. But there are diminishing returns here – both with the repetition of an individual phrase and after a 10-15 minute session of intensive note-learning, you hear an edge of mental weariness infiltrate the sound. So the trick is to balance continuity of singing with engaging other bits of the brain so as to maintain the learning process without overworking the primary bit that stores musical content.
And what I find really exciting is when you can do this by turning the focus on how to sing something. So, we talked about styling, and shaping, and the onset of a note for a certain tone colour, and matching key vowels – all the things that often get lumped in the category of ‘artistry – to do later when we know the notes’. But actually, they work great as a way to refresh the attention at the same time as living with the notes a bit longer to embed them in memory. And when the choir needed a short rest, we talked about details of the arrangements – why certain bits were written in certain ways (effect on the audience, musical punctuation, relationship of the music with the words, where the part gives a chance to breathe). This again gave something to do while the brains got on with digesting the music they had just absorbed, but also gave points of conceptual understanding to hang the musical memory on. It’s much easier to remember, ‘there’s a gap here because….’ than simply ‘there’s a gap here’.
Well, so I had a good time, as you can probably guess. But I have reason to believe that the choir had a good time too. It wasn’t just that some of them said so – they are nice people, and might have said so anyway! It was that they sang bang in tune all evening. That’s generally a sign that something is right in the universe.
N.b. I should have a nice photo of them to brighten up this post, but whilst I did take my camera I forgot all about until afterwards. Too busy making music, that’s my problem….